Graded on a Curve:
The Who,
Live at Leeds

Many have called the Who’s 1970 Live at Leeds the best live album of all time. Me, I’ve always scoffed. It made no difference that I’d never actually sat down and listened to it. A good rock critic doesn’t have to actually listen to an LP before passing judgment on it. He simply knows, based on gut instinct and certain arcane and occult clues, whether an album is a dud or not. In the case of Live at Leeds, there are three clues to the album being rated far greater than deserved.

The first is the LP’s inclusion of “Summertime Blues,” a song that has always given me hives and put me off my dinner of Hormel’s Chili on hot dogs, which is the impoverished rock critic’s version of pan-fried foie gras with spiced citrus purée. The second is that Live at Leeds suffers—if only in one notable case—from that early seventies affliction, song bloat. You know what I’m talking about: live albums where the bands stretch their songs to extraordinary lengths, in some cases obscene two-sided lengths, forcing the stoned listener to stand up, stagger to the stereo in a Tuinal haze, and turn the damned record over to hear the second side. Finally, there was the issue of song selection: six tunes, three of them covers, with none of the covers being particular favorites of mine. And I’ve never been a big fan of one of the originals, “Magic Bus,” either.

Which has always left me to wonder, “What’s in it for me?” And I’m not alone; in particular, Live at Leeds failed to impress those twin pillars of rock criticism, the generally unintelligible Greil Marcus, who called the music dated and uneventful and the ever-crotchety Robert Christgau, who singled out “Magic Bus” for special abuse, calling it “uncool-at-any-length.”

Besides, I’ve always been more than satisfied with the three Who LPs I consider indispensible, namely Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia. As for the rest of the Who’s catalogue—including Tommy—I had no use for it. But having finally listened to the Live at Leeds, I’m flabbergasted; it may not be, as critic Nik Cohn called it, “the definitive hard-rock holocaust,” but it does rock balls, probably because the Who was the best live band in the world at the time.

Their only competition was Led Zeppelin, and while nobody could come up with a riff as monstrously heavy as Jimmy Page, I rate the Who as the better band if for no other reason than the fact that their rhythm section of John Entwistle (who often played lead parts on the bass) bass and Keith Moon (who was Keith Moon) was as dynamite as the explosives Moon hired a stage hand to place in his drum kit for an episode of TV’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Which might have been a sensible idea had the stage hand not used 10 times the allotted amount of explosives. The resulting detonation not only hurled Moon from the drum riser, it partially deafened Townshend while also singing his hair. Talk about your maximum R&B!

But back to Live at Leeds, which was expressly recorded to be a live album, after Pete Townshend ordered that the recordings from their recent U.S. tour be burnt. (A tragic loss for Who fans, who must rend their garments and ululate every time they think about those tapes going up in smoke.) Instead of the destroyed U.S. tapes, the band recorded 33 songs during a show at Leeds University on Valentine’s Day, 1970, and how they managed to pare down that number of songs to the 6 that made the final cut is beyond me.

What I do know is that it doesn’t please me. I wish the album contained more originals—that 50/50 ratio still rankles—but man, what they do to those covers! Their take on Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” is a masterpiece for the interplay of bass and drums alone (there has never been a better rhythm section than the late John Entwistle and the deceased Keith Moon). Throw the gargantuan power chords of Townshend on top, along with some cool chug a lug guitar, and—magic. And Daltrey outdoes himself, shouting the blues (“They stepped BACK/When a young man walked by”) as Townshend launches into an extended feedback-heavy solo that Daltrey cries and then screams over. Townshend’s guitar then drops out briefly to play random chords as the rhythm section carries the song, only to return at double the power, before Daltrey takes it out with some bombastic vocals.

As for Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” I would be remiss not to give it bonus points for being approximately 44 times heavier than any previous cover. I still don’t like it, but I’m impressed by it, which are two different things. Townshend plays feral blasts of his Gibson SG Special, while Moon’s all cymbals and mayhem and Daltrey’s golden vocal chords are present and accounted for. Townshend plays a short and discordant solo before returning to windmilling, and the band then segues into “Shakin’ All Over,” with Townshend playing a sinuous lead riff over a pummeling rhythm section. Then Moon goes into full frenzy as Townshend spills feedback all over the stage before launching into a recurrent riff that goes insane as Entwistle plays a great bass line behind him. This is barely restrained hysteria, and reaches a peak just before Daltrey—whose vocals are a bit too professional for this slobbering slab of garage rock crunge—slowly sings the title one last time.

“Substitute” is one of my Who faves and they play it relatively straight, with Townshend serving up humongous power chords that stomp all over the stage like King Kong while Moon imitates a fatal car accident with the cymbals. The result is pure power and glory, and it’s one of the most bombastic songs—thanks in largest part to Moon’s TNT drumming—I’ve ever heard. Meanwhile Daltrey complains that he was born with a plastic spoon in his mouth, the backing vocals are cool, and the song builds and builds to a spectacular ending. Here I am complaining about song bloat and I actually wish this one were longer.

“My Generation” opens on a totally insane note, with Townshend playing some V2 riffs and Daltrey stuttering before Entwistle plays some lead lines that’ll blow your mind. Then the band delivers some berserk crash and bash before Townshend plays one of the loudest and fiercest solos of all time. The band then segues into “See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You,” a showcase for Daltrey and a deliberate ploy by Townshend, who more or less called the live “My Generation” a history lesson, saying, “We reprise ‘Tommy’ in it… to mix all the bits of our history together in a one great, huge deafening din.” He’s completely right about the din, and the bits of such tunes as “Underture,” “Naked Eye,” “The Seeker,” and other themes never recorded, but the important thing to remember about this song is that it’s not a medley in the traditional sense but Maximum R&B, with the band occasionally stopping to play slower sections only to break into a barbaric cacophony even fiercer than the one that came before it.

Townshend mingles feedback with power chords that are as dangerously live as downed power lines, while the rhythm section produces a carefully controlled chaos, and the effect is what the poet Arthur Rimbaud called a derangement of all the senses. Townshend plays a quiet section that turns into what sounds to me like Lynyrd Skynyrd, then the band comes in like a horde of Mongols destroying everything in its path, after which Townshend plays another quiet section that segues into some of the most bashing power chords ever recorded. Then there’s another pretty and quiet section, which highlights Moon and Entwistle, before the song rockets into hyperspace, with Townshend serving up some feedback while Moon goes crazy on drums. And on it goes, with Townshend playing guitar god while Entwistle and Moon deliver the goods behind him. The song finally ends in a long series of feedback-drenched crashes, and I think I’ve finally found an example of song bloat that actually works.

As for the closer, “Magic Bus,” it opens with Moonie’s famous stick work and Townshend’s syncopated guitar riff, at which point Townshend sings about the magic bus and the backing vocals follow him until he screams and repeats stubbornly, “I want it, I want it, I want it.” Then some bartering goes on, Townshend runs his hand down the fret board, and the band comes in like a bus accident. Then the song slows, and it’s just Daltrey and Townshend, until the band—Daltrey on harmonica—comes back in and kicks the tempo in the ass. Then the song slows before turning into a powerhouse, with Entwistle playing some big leads and Townshend kicking out the jams until the song ends. Like I say it has never been my favorite Who tune, and I personally would have preferred it had they chosen the Leeds versions of “Sparks,” “Heaven and Hell,” or even “A Quick One While He’s Away,” despite the fact that at 13-plus minutes the last named is another case of song bloat. Still, “Magic Bus” is better than I expected, which is something I can say about every song on the LP.

Bottom line: I have my caveats with Live at Leeds, as mentioned in the beginning of this review. But in the end the Who’s sheer sonic bludgeoning does indeed make the live LP great and a must own. This isn’t an album; it’s a neutron bomb of hard rock, as produced by what may well be rock’s greatest band. Even “My Generation” works because it’s not a case of noodling for noodling’s sake, as bands like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers specialized in, but a series of bombs going off, so that you needn’t nod out during the usual series of dull instrumental interludes. In other words the Who was never a jam band, and I haven’t heard a seventies LP so unremittingly barbaric since, well, ever. Between Townshend’s guitar, Entwistle’s bass, Moon’s drums, and Daltrey’s vocals some synergistic effect occurs, causing my typically unerring critical faculties to short circuit. It’s a lesson in humility, it is, and while I won’t learn anything from it, I’m happy to add Live at Leeds to my list of favorite Who albums, “Summertime Blues” and all.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Karen G Berry

    Never a fan of bombastic cacophony, I grew up on this one and the only song on it I could bear was “Magic Bus.” So many other fantastic records by The Who. This one was overlong and self-indulgent.

    • Michael Little

      I tend to agree, except about the cacophony. I like Substitute and parts of My Generation. I suspect I rated it too highly. Second thoughts and all. New grade–B-!

      • Rodgman

        As good as your review is, I suspect that your age may be holding you back on this one. If you’re not at least 55 years old, you just not in a good position to be passing judgement on this one-of-a-kind wonder. You can only evaulate it in the context of the time that it was released in. Disturbling loud, raucous, almost obnoxious at times, it is a live rock masterpiece that stands on its own.

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